Brett Stevens is a hardcore conservative writer, not that that is a bad thing. For me, it’s generally a bad thing when anyone states and defines themselves by their politics. For me politics are an evolving thing, but Brett is a very smart cookie and confident his ways are right (pun intended)… I like Brett because of his smarts and confidence, his website http://www.amerika.org has made me think deep and that’s getting less and less within the online community… I also dig Brett because he’s a metal head and hessian and runs and writes for a number of metal friendly websites, so a very conservative and ultra smart metal head is a person who is probably the odd man out when asking artists about underground art.
What is underground art?
Underground means that which happens outside the official narrative of society. Every society has taboos, and some kind of values system (if you don’t choose one, you get pluralism by default), and anything outside of that is underground art. It overlaps with outsider art, because all underground art is outsider art, but not all outsider art is underground. For example, in our society hipsterism is tolerated, and hipsters have found a way to both be rebellious and conformist by slagging the surface qualities of our society while embracing its inner values like consumerism and egalitarianism. For an excellent analysis of that phenomenon, I’d recommend David Brooks’ great book ”Bobos in Paradise.”
Are there rules or a set of ethics to the underground?
I think there’s an emergent set of rules similar to those used by criminals and revolutionaries, which amount to not interfering with anyone else’s ability to be underground and not be acted against by the aboveground society. Beyond that, I think there’s some shared sense of purpose, but that’s going to vary with the quality of the individual. The smart/decent ones really pick up on it fast.
What is selling out?
Selling out is compromising the vision of reality that is presented to you so that you can instead offer a vision that is more comforting to others based on what you already know they like. For example, if people like outlandish and shocking material, it’s selling out to offer it to them; by a converse example, if they like innocuous vapid pop music, it’s also selling out to offer it to them. This makes selling out a difficult standard; it’s an objective one, but not everyone can perceive it (much like most of us can’t do particle physics, brain surgery, be restaurant-quality chefs).
The classic test I use is the Metallica black album test. This album is a sell-out; it’s also really good for a radio heavy metal album. If you don’t believe me, compare it to the nu-metal that came only eight years later. What makes it a sell-out is that Metallica knew from casual market research that if they went back to verse-chorus and dramatic key-shift after the bridge, the audience would eat up their ”sound,” which is the speed metal flavor conveyed by the aesthetic elements of their work. They threw out their actual innovations, like structure and use of melody and open chords in heavy metal, as well as their actual content, which was a sort of restlessness about social control and the future of humanity’s desire to better itself toward Utopia, and instead began writing these libertarian-cum-anarchist songs about being isolated and emotional. It worked. However, they traded away a future of being respected for being apart from the pop herd. Ultimately, the difference between the two would be negligible, because any extra money they earned by selling out would be more than they could spend anyway.
Can underground go above ground and still be underground?
Yes, but it’s tricky. By the definition above, anything which does not preach that which comforts those who wish to remain in denial is not selling out. It’s about anticipation; you know what the audience wants, so you can gratify it, but that’s not really your job as an artist. Your job is to discover new (mental, emotional, conceptual) spaces and explore them, not to dress up the safe old stuff and make it have new “flavoring” while retaining its familiar essence. Some bands do go above ground and still stay underground; I’m thinking of Robert Fripp here, maybe Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Others stay in a liminal area of niche marketing that is widely but not universally recognized, like Dead Can Dance. Some stay underground and sell as if they were part of a mainstream niche, and these become the truly cult acts. For example, the Misfits are a pretty well-known icon in our society, but they never made it to the musical festivals, music awards or Hollywood movies. We might also mention Slayer here.
Have you ever sold out?
Not artistically or in my political writings. I have made mistakes, and sometimes bought into easy lies (“corporations are evil,” was one), but I have never intentionally made that step of saying, “Hey, people like this sort of things, so I’m going to switch my stuff over to that format.”
I might be more successful if I did sell out, but there’s a catch: when you sell out, you become more like what everyone else is doing. Your works thus become less relevant outside of your immediate time frame. Selling out can be seen as trading away that which makes you distinctive for that which makes you accepted and profitable, but by selling out, you also put yourself out of the running for long-term relevance.
Is it possible to steal an idea?
Yes, of course. Use it without attribution.
I see a balance in idea-theft. On one hand, I think people should be rewarded for having good ideas. This isn’t so much capitalism as the thought that I want a society where people are gunning toward doing things that are effective, and promoting good ideas does that. On the other hand, I think others should be able to steal good ideas if they then put them to good use. Good use would be an underground metal band repurposing a Slayer riff in some interesting way; bad use would be some idiot nu-metal band appropriating a Slayer riff to use in a song that is dumber, simpler and more groupthink than the Slayer song.
Your biggest artistic regret?
That I didn’t stick to my guns with visions I’ve had in the past, and just keep creating regardless of whether people could comprehend it.
Your biggest artistic inspiration?
Not to be cheesy, but reality. It’s beautiful if you look at it on a functional level. It’s also terrifying to experience. I think it has infinite mystery and our learning will never conquer it, nor would we be happy if it did.
What is dangerous art?
Dangerous art is that which reveals something which is both (a) true/realistic and (b) taboo or denied by the current social climate, which is what people consider “relevant” and universally accepted to be true.
For example, right now, people look at you like you’re a vampire sex alien if you oppose egalitarianism, pluralism, permissiveness or government subsidies. Even if your reasons are good, they have programmed their brains to see acceptance and endorsement of these ideas as necessary for participation and/or success, and so they see you as a threat, an Other, an outsider and probably a criminal or Satanist.
It cracks me up when I read some of the bits in your (and Amy’s) book about being outed as a Satanist. Often laughter disguises pain, and this is the case, because the paranoia about people being Satanists is analogous to what you experience for any dangerous thought. And this is where it gets complex.
Taboos come in multiple forms. I support many of them, such as taboos against incest, pedophilia and domestic violence against children. Other taboos exist to conceal a lack of knowledge, a great fear, or anything that can un-do or successfully oppose the current social paradigm. In this view, politics is supported by social attitudes and people tend to herd together and act like drones and fall into group-think and contrarianism, which supports the group-think by making it the focus of activity. Where a taboo exists, there is an underlying behavior x which is denied, and a scapegoat y which is assigned to conceal the identity of x. Throughout history, we have Satan as the scapegoat for the deceptive, narcissistic, morally lazy, corrupt, selfish, individualistic, etc. acts of individuals. The secret this society doesn’t want you to see is that we deserve the government we get, because most people are selfish and in doing so, have displaced their souls to become sheerly physical beings. They know only the ego and its physical demands. They have pushed aside the need for a purpose to life, for moral clarity and so on. As a result, these empty shells or zombies are hive-minding together in order to find ways to be in denial of the problem. As a result, they hide it behind a symbol, like Satan. When someone comes around and identifies with that symbol, not just in a contrarian way (Satan = hate god) but in a positive way (what Satan stands for = good), they start freaking out because you’re getting close to revealing the secret that both bonds them all together and isolates them from their fears.
That’s what dangerous art does. I’ll admit to not being an atheist, but also not a dualist. This puts me in an awkward place in that everyone’s religion seems OK to me, but my interpretations of that same religion lead me to different places that are less incompatible with reality than most “religious” (really: social) interpretations of those religions. As a perennialist, I approve of all seeking of the divine. I think it’s not what people expect and what they talk about, but I view their knowledge as like any body of knowledge a heuristic which will improve over time. Thus I encourage them, because only through practice can they grow to see more (or at least, those of them for whom it is congenitally possible for them to grow to see more have a shot at it). This is a classic esotericist position. All languages, all interpretations, and all visions describe the same world and the same truths; now we’re just adjusting the precision.
As a side note: I mention above that contrarianism can affirm beliefs more than it will tear them down. In the case of religion, direct attacks tend to make them circle up the wagons and oppose you with dogma, which destroys them but also makes them immune to whatever truths you have. My approach instead is to view what they are saying, and what I am saying, as both imperfect descriptions of reality, and to try to find parity with them so that I can express over what I carry, and hopefully thus upgrade both of our views (not necessarily to equal degrees). This is how I learn from others, and pass on learning. It’s not as emotionally satisfying as saying all Christians are the devil, but then again, it’s more subversive and keeps me away from the fanatics.
Bonus question… nature or nurture?
Both, with heavy dependency on nature. The underlying ability has to be there, but beyond that, we can program ourselves to rise if we put our minds to it. In my estimation, traits are 80% inherited and 20% produced by nurture, but that’s deceptive because nature determines raw ability and nurture can help determine or destroy expressed ability. If you put a genius in a room and torture him for two decades, what comes out will probably not be genius. It will be hatred incarnate. If you put an idiot in Harvard for two decades, you’ll still get an idiot, even if he/she has figured out how to appear intelligent by emulating the behaviors of the intelligent. If you take someone of reasonable raw ability, force them into discipline and teach them good principles, they’ll go a lot farther than if you put them in front of a television and sell them battery operated singing fish. There’s a lot of undiscovered good in people but it takes effort, discipline and a type of interpersonal fascism to bring it to light.